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The Natal Witness – June 14, 2001
Opening up the past
By Stephen Coan
The fifth volume of the James Stuart Archive, edited by the late Colin de B. Webb and John Wright, has just been published.

THE published James Stuart Archive, subtitled Recorded Oral Evidence Relating to the History of the Zulu and Neighbouring Peoples (University of Natal Press), provides an extraordinary window into South Africa’s past and consists of a series of annotated interviews conducted and recorded by Stuart, a colonial official who held magisterial posts all over Natal from the 1880s until 1912.

"The archive originated from an idea that Stuart developed in the late 1890s," says Wright, a professor of history in the School of Human and Social Studies on the local university campus. "He was one of a small group of colonial officials concerned that black people were being misunderstood by the Natal colonial government. Their position was that black people were being misruled because of ignorance on the part of the rulers with regard to their customs, culture and history."

If government had an understanding of Zulu history and culture, Stuart believed, the authorities might readjust their policies. "Of course, now we see this idea as highly naïve," says Wright. "But Stuart was an idealist."

To bring about a greater understanding, Stuart set about recording information concerning the Zulus and their history and, thanks to his official position, he was able to give his idea concrete form. "Through his contacts, people came to him or he heard of major informants and he would often spend days at a time with them," says Wright. "He would write rough notes as he went along and then work them up into a more coherent form, mainly in English but with a lot of Zulu words and phrases sandwiched in-between."

As well as the interviews, Stuart also recorded folk tales and praise poems.

After the union of South Africa in 1910, the resulting centralization of government saw the control of Native Affairs in Natal move to Pretoria and Stuart’s influence waned. "He resigned in 1912, probably out of considerable dissatisfaction," comments Wright.

The changing times saw Stuart adopt a different approach. No longer so concerned about helping the colonial rulers, he became worried at what he regarded as the erosion of black people’s culture and history as increasing urbanization and industrialization drew young people to the cities. To combat this he wrote a series of Zulu readers, drawing from the material he had collected previously. The first was Tulasizwe, published in 1923, a year after he had moved to England. This was followed by Hlangakula (1924), Baxoxele (1924), Kulumetule (1925) and Vusezakiti (1926). "These were put into black schools through his connections back in Natal," says Wright.

"In all, there were 78 file boxes containing thousands of pages to be gone through one by one. Some interviews had taken place over a number of years and this meant collating material from different parts of the collection."

In England, Stuart continued to work on the collection and spent time in the British Museum recording material for a biography of Shepstone that was never written, as well as working on notes towards the editing of the Diary of Henry Francis Fynn, a project finally completed eight years after Stuart’s death in 1942 by D. McK. Malcolm.

During World War 2, Stuart’s collection was stored in the basement of his London home where it survived the Blitz. After the war it was sold by Stuart’s widow to Killie Campbell in Durban who was a family friend. Although safely deposited in the Killie Campbell Collection, it was largely ignored. "At this time historians were not remotely interested in black history," says Wright.

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